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Martini Movements

Martini Movements


(for Steve Barton and John Mazella)


The Martini is the quintessential cocktail, served in fine dining and drinking establishments around the world, the icon of relaxation and fulltime partner in the unbridled pursuit of the good life. When humans unite in their endless quest for personal fulfillment it must certainly follow that a classic Martini, while not necessarily integral to the moment, is often not far from the core of the event. This thought came to me as I ruminated on my life and history in the West, a fruitful time of growth and enlightenment that followed my 1990 exodus from New England. After revisiting several life-changing events and stages from this period, I realized that the Martini was often nearby, as participant and complement, from ancillary accessory to the epitome of success, gratitude, and appreciation.

When it comes to the actual drink, let me begin by repeating my words from an earlier story. “I believe in the old adage that states, “Three are too many and one is not enough.” The first Martini is but an overture, just as the orchestra at an opera will first present instrumentally all the melodic themes that will soon be explored in detail and depth. The first Martini tells me that the houselights now flash and dim, that the time has come for me to take my seat, to prepare myself for the coming moments, a respite to savor and enjoy.”
(from "On Martinis and Oysters", Laudizen King, December, 2010)

My own history in California is an oleo of situations covering the range of human emotions from the professional to the profound, from the public arena to the personal expressions of love and friendship. I thought of this life in the West as a symphonic work, a united whole containing the unique periods and melodies of those years. These diverse melodies, each with their own particular orchestration and tempo, are a collection of themes bridged together by the arrangements of my life.

What follows is a collection of illuminating excerpts from my own overture, some of the more memorable Martini Variations that life composed for me here in the West.

Soon after my arrival in California, I took a position with the consumer electronics division of Mitsubishi Electric in Orange County, a maker of high-end television, stereo, and video recording equipment, a corporation committed to the community and its employees. In 1994, the company planned to relocate the corporate headquarters to the Atlanta area and I was one of many selected for the move to Georgia.

Even though the company offered substantial financial incentives to relocate, I chose not to go. I was in a new relationship with a woman I cared for deeply and I needed to stay in Los Angeles to nourish that bond. With that love serving as my motivation, I left Mitsubishi and secured a new position at a firm in Century City, then leased an apartment in the upscale community of Marina del Rey.

In the short span of two months, I was in despair; the relationship had deteriorated and my job in Century City was a disaster, the company had misrepresented both their technical direction and the role they wanted me to fill. A few weeks later, I chatted on the phone with my old boss at Mitsubishi Electric. After a few minutes of small talk, Danny, who was in Georgia at the time, invited me to have dinner with him at Los Angeles International Airport the following weekend.

Although not certain about the exact direction our meeting might take, I looked forward to dinner with a mixture of excitement and anticipation. The day arrived and from my apartment in Marina del Rey, north of LAX, it took but a few minutes to find the restaurant, located just off Century Boulevard and close to the sprawling airport. I walked inside and spotted Danny reading a wine list; a waiter showed me to his table. He set the wine list down and ordered two Martinis. Over drinks, we chatted for a few moments about the ongoing corporate relocation with Danny describing the challenges some faced in adjusting to their new work environs in Georgia; I shared with him the story of how my immediate situation had deteriorated, both professionally and personally.

The waiter returned and we ordered appetizers, and with a gesture of his hand, Danny ordered two more Martinis. The drinks arrived and Danny leaned forward on his arms; the moment was at hand, the air thick with possibility.

The situation in Georgia was this: Mitsubishi had not yet filled my position but Danny needed someone in the role immediately as the company now planned to implement a new enterprise-wide software system. I could come to Georgia and be a part of that implementation if I so desired, the company would pay all relocation costs associated with the move, but he could no longer offer me the financial incentives that were part of the original package I had turned down several months before. There was one additional stipulation; Danny needed an answer, I had to let him know tonight.

In my life, the critical moments of decision have never seemed so striking and salient as they did that night in Los Angeles. In the immediacy of the moment, I reviewed my situation and thought about the life changes that could soon become reality; I wondered if I was ready for them. We sat quietly for a few seconds.

I extended my hand and said, "All right, I'm in"

"That's good news," he said as he shook my hand and passed me a business card. "The people who know about this dinner tonight will be glad to hear that you are coming back to the fold. I'll call my secretary first thing in the morning, call her yourself at mid-morning and she'll handle anything you need from the Georgia side. We’ll get an offer letter in your hands as soon as possible, so you can give notice at work and begin the moving process as well. Keep my secretary posted on your progress and get there safe and as quick as you can."

After that brief exchange, dinner became a celebratory occasion. That night, we enjoyed a special dinner and the warmth of each other’s company. I felt that I had handled myself well during this period when I had been away from Mitsubishi, I had tried to change my life by following love, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in that. If that love relationship carried no future for me, then now was the time to make that discovery. So, I will always be grateful to Danny for offering me that second chance. Georgia was a grand experience personally and professionally, and the skills I gained during that software implementation powered the rest of my career.

Three years later, in September of 1997, I found myself pursuing another position. Mitsubishi had decided to relocate the headquarters back to Southern California to be closer to its engineering roots in Japan. I was in no hurry to return to Los Angeles, but rather wanted to explore my options, this time as a Technical Project Manager at a large family-owned poultry business headquartered in Livingston, California. This company planned to implement the same software package I had worked on in Atlanta. After flying into Sacramento, I drove south to Modesto where the company had secured lodging for me at a hotel. I spent the next two days interviewing with various management and technical staff, from the CEO to Vice Presidents, from line managers to team members, only two days, yet with travel and all it was a numbing and grueling experience.

Several weeks later, back at work in Atlanta, the poultry company informed me that I was a finalist for the position in Livingston, but if I wanted the job, I must first complete a one on one session with the company's industrial psychologist, a Dr Phil Nelson, at his office in San Francisco. At first, I thought my contact was joking; such an interview was usually a requirement for a position that reported directly to the highest officers of the company, but the CEO felt that the level of expense and risk involved with the project warranted such an evaluation. So on a Friday night in mid October, the poultry company flew me into San Francisco on a non-stop where a personnel agent met me at the airport, drove me to my hotel, and handed me a large envelope. Inside the envelope were return tickets for Sunday and walking directions to the Doctor's office a few blocks away.

The next morning, I followed the directions and completed the various tests and assessments at Dr Nelson's office, a process that lasted from 8:30 to noon. Afterwards, physically and mentally exhausted, I returned to my hotel, changed into casual dress, and walked to Fisherman's Wharf in search of food and fresh air.

I found an establishment with a large open deck in the rear that looked out onto San Francisco Bay and sat down at a table outside where I ordered a Martini and browsed a menu. I sat in the bright sun of a perfect autumn day and enjoyed the sights: Alcatraz, Angel Island, and all the various boats plying the choppy waters of the bay. As I savored my drink on the deck, I knew that I had given my all to land this job; whatever happened next, I had given everything of myself along the way.

I also decided, sitting in the sun on that deck overlooking the bay, that if the company offered me the appointment, I would take it. As it turned out, the poultry farm did make an offer of employment as a Technical Project Manager. After a brief negotiation, I accepted the position and the challenge, and so began one of the most rewarding periods of my professional career.

In 2003, my girlfriend Shirley and I planned a hiking trip from Tuolumne Meadows down into Yosemite Valley, a distance of almost thirty miles. We made reservations for four nights in the High Sierra Camps of Yosemite National Park. Each reservation entitled us to dinner on the day of arrival, a bunk in a canvas tent, and breakfast in the morning. After leaving a car at Curry Village in Yosemite Valley (near 4000’ of elevation), a shuttle would take us to the camp at Tuolumne Meadows (around 8,000’) where we would spend one night. The next day, we would hike to Vogelsang (10,125’) for a night. Leaving Vogelsang the following morning, we planned to hike over Vogelsang Pass (near 10,750’) before descending to Merced Lake (7,150’) for two nights, then a final 14-mile hike down into Yosemite Valley and back to our car.

Our home in the Central Valley is only 88’ above sea level; not being young, we worried about hiking in the high elevations around Vogelsang with little acclimatization to altitude. With that in mind, I extended the duration of our adventure and reserved a room at Yosemite View Lodge. The motel is located on rte 140 in El Portal, just west of the Park entrance. The elevation of the lodge was over 2900’, so we could spend the night before our trip sleeping higher than a meager 88’ in Modesto. We could afford to sleep late as well, seeing we only had a short drive up into Yosemite Valley in the morning to catch our shuttle.

Late in the afternoon on the appointed day, after checking into our room at Yosemite View, we walked over to the restaurant. The lodge also had a cafe and lounge so Shirley and I opted for a table in the lounge, a dining location I much prefer over a large serving room with kids. We were excited about the upcoming hike, hopeful for and confident of success, but also carrying a bit of self-doubt.

It occurred to us that this was our last evening in the comforts of civilization. Tomorrow we embarked on our great adventure in the backcountry of Yosemite and the start of our four nights of tent lodging in the high camps of the Park. I asked the bartender to make a Martini for myself and to pour a cold glass of white wine for Shirley, and we sat in the cafe and relaxed, grateful to be here at the doorstep of Yosemite. Both of us now realized that the idea to spend the night here was really a brilliant stroke. We talked about our planned route, the elevation, and our desire to hike through Vogelsang Pass. The 14-mile hike down into Yosemite Valley seemed daunting, but the 2 nights we planned at Merced Lake would give us the opportunity to rest and recharge before the final trek back to our car. But that night, sitting in the lounge of the Yosemite View Lodge, it was time to go slow and relax. The menu professed the creation of fine pizzas made from scratch if you had the time to wait, so we ordered a custom pizza and I had another Martini as the clock ticked down towards one of the most exciting and rewarding exploits we would undertake together.

One April day, Shirley and I were at the famed Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite, sitting in the bar as a patron played the grand piano in the background. A customer walked up and asked the bartender for an Old Raj Martini, and I watched as she created the drink using a bottle containing a liquid with a soft yellow tint. After he paid and left, I asked her to show me the bottle and tell me about the gin. This was my introduction to Cadenhead’s Old Raj, 110 proof, with a hint of saffron providing a silky texture in addition to the unique golden hue. This is a big wonderful gin usually found only at the finest establishments; the beguiling taste is important and elegant, and I consider it among my favorites. Yet I am cognizant of where and how I enjoy Old Raj; after the overture plays and the second Martini is prepared, I recommend a substantive appetizer with your drink. I would not want to perform delicate surgery, nor gently maneuver the QE2 into her berth, after enjoying two large Old Raj doubles on an empty stomach.

On rare occasions, perfection appears when least expected. One Saturday night in winter, Shirley and I found ourselves at the Chukchansi Casino in Coarsegold, on rte 41 north of Fresno and south of the Wawona entrance to Yosemite National Park. Gamblers packed the casino and the gaming floor was noisy, and full of energy; finding a seat anywhere was a challenge. Shirley and I visited the finest dining locale on the premises, a restaurant specializing in steak and seafood, where the woman managing the reservations book informed us that the wait for dinner was now 3 hours. We declined to leave a name and walked into the packed lounge looking for a seat. Two stools opened up at the bar and we quickly occupied them. Not only did they serve food in the bar, the kitchen had recently received a large shipment of fresh Pacific oysters. For the next two hours, I savored my favorite repast: raw oysters and Martinis, along with a small cup of chowder and good sourdough bread. Shirley enjoyed chowder, grilled salmon, bread, and a cold white wine. Dinner that night was better than unexpected and memorable; it was perfect.

Next, is the story of my first trip to the Anza Borrego Desert with Shirley. The Anza is a large and rugged desert wilderness located north of the Mexican border, east of the Laguna Mountains, and south of the San Jacinto mountains near Palm Springs. At 600,000 acres, it is the largest State Park in California and second in size only to the Adirondack Mountains State Park in New York. We planned a February trip to Bow Willow Campground. An old friend from New England who now lived in San Diego, Steve Barton, would meet us there and spend one night at the campground.

Shirley and I had been seeing each other for a short time. She had never been to the Anza and had not yet met Steve, and for her the prospect of a long trip to the wilds of the desert to camp with me and a stranger carried along with it a bit of trepidation. We both love the desert, however, and we finalized the plans with Steve.

It took all day to drive to Bow Willow; the total distance is almost 600 miles. We left Modesto and made our way south to Bakersfield, went east over the high desert around Mojave and descended through Cajon Pass to the I-10 and continued on towards Palm Springs. We drove east on the 10 freeway and past the exit to Palm Springs. Shirley was afraid we were lost but a gas stop near Indio confirmed our route. We soon left the highway to head south towards the Salton Sea.

We had entered the desert, yet our destination was still more than two hours away. So began our private expedition into the unknown as our road took us farther from civilization as the desert itself became more rugged and remote, and the level of anxiety rose. We followed along the western shore of the Salton Sea until rte 78 branched off due west; here we made a hard right turn and drove towards the mountains in the distance. The flatness of the desert near the Salton Sea eventually gave way to rugged outcroppings and the road guided us through narrow rocky passages.

Eventually we reached the intersection with the S2 road where we made a hard left turn and headed south towards Bow Willow, still almost an hour away. The shadows were getting long and both Shirley and I were tired and needed a break from the long drive, but our only option was to continue towards our final destination. Stopping now would force us to find our off-road campsite in the dark later on.

Occasionally, off to the west, I could make out the Laguna Mountains on our right, backlit by the setting sun and towering six thousand feet above us. We drove past the hot springs and their small landing strip. Farther south, the canyon land off to our right opened up and I recognized the familiar terrain of my old stomping grounds. I slowed down to get my bearings and just as the road began to dip before crossing a desert wash just ahead, I turned right off the blacktop and on to a narrow dirt track. We drove past the jeep trail on our right that led to the rounded top of Egg Mountain and continued towards the mountains in the west, raising clouds of dust as the road snaked by smoke trees and bow willows growing in the wash on our left. The Bow Willow Campground was just ahead, two miles in from the turnoff on the S2.

The campground suddenly came into view and there was Steve sitting alongside a campfire waiting for us to arrive. Turning off this main dirt entrance, a “U” shaped road looped through the campground and individual campsites sat on both the inner and outer sides of the loop. The road branched off to the left here and rejoined the main dirt track farther up. Steve was in the first outside site on the left and I pulled into the next out-facing site beside his.

A campsite at Bow Willow consists of a vehicle parking spot, a flat sandy area for a tent, a fire ring, and a solid picnic table situated underneath a ramada. A ramada is comprised of four wooden posts standing outside the corners of the table; these posts support a large rectangle of boards attached to a frame that sits high above the cooking and dining table. As the boards are not connected, rain could fall through, but the ramada is a desert structure and it provides the campsite with a modicum of shade that moves over the ground as the sun arcs its way across the sky during the day. In addition, Steve had secured his blue nylon dining tarp around two and a half sides of the ramada, thus providing a solid windbreak for cooking and eating at the picnic table.

We hopped out of the truck and made quick introductions, and followed that with a needed bathroom stop. I set up our tent in the last light of day then spread out our sleeping pads and bags before securing the mesh doors of the tent. Shirley and Steve emptied the back of my truck and brought some wood bundles and my cooler over to Steve’s campsite. The chill of a February night in the Anza was spreading across the desert floor so Shirley and I put on jackets and hats and joined Steve at his fire.

The stage was now set for a memorable and enjoyable night out in the wilderness, a desert camping experience unlike anything that I was accustomed to, and for Shirley, as fine an introduction to my favorite desert and to Steve as I could have imagined.

Except for us, the desert campground was empty. A large campfire blazed in the fire ring, throwing heat and light out into the blackness and illuminating the closest desert shrubs and cholla cactus. Candle lanterns, secured by ropes tied to the ramada above, dangled over the picnic table, shedding their soft pleasing glow. Steve reached into a camp box and pulled out three clear plastic Lexan glasses, one a stemmed wine glass and two double-sized classic Martini glasses. He pulled a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc out of a cooler, opened it, and filled the plastic wine glass with Shirley’s favorite wine, a tidbit I had passed to him before the trip. Next, he pulled out a plastic bottle containing a clear liquid and held it up.

“Dry Beefeater Martinis,” he said. “I’ve had this bottle covered in ice all day.” He filled the two Martini glasses with liquid from the container in his hand then returned the closed bottle to its resting place beneath the ice. He dropped a large stuffed olive into each glass then handed one over to me.

“Cheers,” I said.

“Cheers, bro,” he replied, then said, “Shirley, cheers.”

The three of us touched glasses and drank.

I looked about us; the desert was black and the mountains stood out against the night horizon. Above us, sprawled the unspoiled starry luxury of a cloudless night sky. Steve put out cheese and crackers as we talked, laughed, and drank. The mournful howl of desert coyotes came drifting through the campground and the memory of the long drive was sliding away. Shirley was enjoying herself and appreciated the convivial campsite that greeted her on this first visit to the Anza.

Steve had lit a baby Weber grill upon our arrival, and now he pulled three potatoes wrapped in foil out of a provisions box and set them on the rack under the cover to bake.

“This is dinner,” he said, and opened a container that held three lovely steaks, filet mignon, small but thick. “I have salad and French bread to go with the steaks, along with one of these.” He placed a fine California Cabernet on the table for us to inspect, then he opened the bottle to let the wine breathe.

Shirley was duly impressed; this degree of largesse never entered her mind when she wondered what that first night in the desert with Steve might entail.

“One more surprise,” said Steve. “First, give me your glasses.”

We set our empty glasses down and Steve refilled them exactly as before. We raised our drinks in another toast and then watched in amazement and admiration as Steve pulled out nine jumbo scallops, battered them, and deep-fried the whole batch on his camp stove. That is how I savored my second Martini of the night, as an accompaniment to three perfect scallops served with Tartar sauce while the prowlers of the desert howled away in the distance.

I consider those two Beefeater cocktails, in conjunction with the people, their presentation, locale, and the evening that followed, to be the finest Martinis of my life.

Recently, I enjoyed my favorite repast, Martinis and oysters, at a restaurant on the coast of California near Half Moon Bay. Times are hard in California right now and I, as so many around me, have felt the pain caused by the economic downturn. Friends have slipped away to wallow in an emotional depression. On top of that, I grow older by the day and the doors of opportunity close and become fewer in number. The enthusiasm of the new dawn gives way to the silent and personal resignation of the evening. Here in the autumn of my life, as the days grow short, I give thanks for the multitude of memories and experiences I carry within me. Good things remain in the world and when he is older, a man sees his resignation at the close of day with a set of eyes far removed from those that held the gaze of his youth. As the sun sets in the west over the Pacific, I will watch it go with a plate of raw oysters and one more Beefeater Martini, and raise a toast to all things ascendant and to whoever owns the day.

Steve Barton, Anza Borrego Desert
Steve Barton, Anza Borrego Desert

Laudizen King
September, 2011